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Five years ago this month, a Kurdish and Arab militia backed by the United States pushed Islamic State fighters out of a village in eastern Syria, marking the group’s demise as a self-proclaimed caliphate. However, the Islamic State has since evolved into a more traditional terrorist organization, now operating as a clandestine network with cells spread across regions from West Africa to Southeast Asia, engaging in guerrilla attacks, bombings, and targeted assassinations. One of the most relentless affiliates is the Islamic State in Khorasan, active in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran, with intentions to broaden its attacks into Europe and beyond.

Islamic State Khorasan, also known as ISIS-K, has been responsible for several high-profile attacks in recent years, including twin bombings in Iran and a concert attack near Moscow, killing scores of people and injuring many others. U.S. officials have highlighted ISIS-K as a significant counterterrorism concern, with the group retaining the capability and will to launch attacks on U.S. and Western interests abroad with little warning. Despite the ongoing battle between the Taliban and ISIS-K in Afghanistan, the latter has managed to carry out attacks beyond the region, including cross-border strikes into Pakistan and plots in Europe.

Last July, Germany and the Netherlands conducted coordinated arrests targeting individuals connected to an ISIS-K network, suspected of planning attacks in Germany, with a focus on Cologne Cathedral. These plots were organized by low-level operatives, primarily from Europe, who were quickly detected and thwarted. However, there are growing concerns that ISIS-K is learning from its mistakes, as demonstrated by the recent attack on a Roman Catholic church in Istanbul, suggesting an increasing level of sophistication and the ability to tap into local extremist networks.

The Moscow and Iran attacks showed greater sophistication on the part of ISIS-K, indicating extensive planning and the utilization of local extremist networks. The group has been fixated on Russia for the past two years, frequently criticizing President Vladimir Putin in its propaganda. A significant number of ISIS-K members are of Central Asian origin, and some individuals living in Russia may have become radicalized, providing support for the group’s operations. Russian and Iranian authorities may have underestimated the threat posed by ISIS-K, as they did not act on detailed American warnings of imminent attack plotting.

As a result of the recent attacks in Moscow and Iran, counterterrorism specialists are concerned that ISIS-K may intensify its efforts to strike in Europe, particularly in countries like France, Belgium, and Britain that have been previous targets. An individual of North Caucasus or Central Asian origin traveling from Afghanistan or Ukraine to Europe could serve as an opportunity for ISIS-K to carry out violent attacks in the West. With the looming possibility of the Paris Olympics this summer, counterterrorism officials are on high alert, recognizing the event as a potential premium terrorist target for groups like ISIS-K.

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